Black Women Writers, Racism and Sexism
In Carlene Hatcher Polite’s 1967 novel, “The Flagellants”, the main character describes her love affair with a Black poet as “irrevocable trauma.” Ideal, delivers (in part) this message before putting him out of her life:
“Denounce the slave nature, the reactionary stigma. Who is enslaving you? Change your mythical virility into courage, your commendable knowledge into spirit.”
Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple” elicited outraged criticism from the Black community over the portrayal of Black men. Her amazing skill as a writer was partially unnoticed by her one dimensional portraits of Black men.
Even in the 70’s, there were complaints about the increase in stereotypical fictional portraits of Black men as thieves, rapists, and one’s that can’t seem to do right.
Notable authors such as Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, and Gloria Naylor have focused on the sometimes embittered relationships between Black men and women.
Whereas the primary concern of Black male authors was the oppressive nature of American society, many Black women writers have been concerned with the oppression women experience in their personal lives at the hands of men.
The Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf” was met with mixed reviews. Some critics said it showed the beautiful camaraderie and endurance of Black women, while others claimed it an “ironic and savage” portrait of the brutality of Black men.
With the growth of the feminist movement during the 70’s, men became a natural and logical target for women writers. These stories are not meant to suggest that the majority of fiction by Black women is focused on Black male brutality. Nor are they meant to suggest they exclusively focus on Black male violence. Oftentimes, these confrontations were part of a much larger thematic structure.
Other Black writers – including poet Sonia Sanchez, who found Alice Walker’s theme of Black male brutality to be an “overemphasis” – have spoken out against the negative images of Black men in women’s fiction. Authors W.E.B Dubois and James Weldon Johnson had an emphasis on establishing humane images of Blacks.
The arguments go back and forth, even now. It may come down to sales, because it seems to me that the marketable element in many of these books is the attack on Black men. There are many talented writers who have avoided this narrative and have not been as successful.
However you look at it, the conversation that it’s presenting is important to the Black community.
One of the major forces shaping Black literature has been the commitment to rectify anti-Black stereotypes created by non-Black writers. The negative stereotypes of Black men (lazy, shiftless, aggressive, and abusive) and Black women (easy, immoral, loud, and angry) were not created by Black writers. Today, it seems as these tropes are being reaffirmed.
Nonetheless, the forthrightness among Black women writers has and will continue to invigorate Black literature.